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More on W G Stirling, Mera K Sett and the unknown artist of the Lotus edition

May 9, 2018

This post by Bob Forrest is a follow-up to Danton O’Day’s comments on the two previous posts relating to the identification of the unknown artist whose illustrations are presented in the Lotus Library issue of the Rubaiyat in 1918.

In his recent book on Early Artist of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam 1914-1929, Danton O’Day suggests that there is significant evidence that Mera K. Sett was the unknown artist of the Lotus Library edition of 1918.  There are two elements in his analysis.

One of these relates to the interpretation of the monogrammed initials on the “New Lamps for Old” page at the front of the Lotus edition.  Research carried out since Danton’s book was published suggests strongly that the initials shown are W.G.S. and that they demonstrably relate to another artist, W.G. Stirling, The evidence for this conclusion is set out in summary in the previous post, and Danton has acknowledged the strength of this conclusion.

What, then, of the second aspect of Danton’s analysis, the parallels he finds between the illustrations by Sett and those by Stirling? My personal feeling is that they are not very significant. Taking the parallels in order, Sett’s Nude is more like that on the title page of Beardsley’s illustrated edition of Wilde’s play Salomé (Fig.1) than it is like the Stirling Nude (which in some ways reminds me more of the later Rubaiyat illustrations of John Yunge Bateman than it does that of Sett.) Besides, pictures of nudes with their modesty preserved by a variety of means are legion

Fig 1

Fig 2

As regards the Peacock Feather designs common to both Sett & Stirling, they also have a precursor in Beardsley’s Salomé, in his famous “Peacock Skirt” (Fig.2.) Indeed, Beardsley used eight large peacock feathers in his design for the cover of Wilde’s play, though it was not used at the time, and only published as an example of his work later.

The Moons (or Queer Faces, as I call them) also have a precursor in Beardsley’s Salomé, in his “Woman in the Moon” (Fig.3.) Another Queer Face, here with a peacock, appears in “Peacock and Rising Sun” (Fig.4.), though this picture, being from the H.S. Nichols collection, is almost certainly a forgery.

I am not saying that either Sett or Stirling copied from Beardsley (in fact, Sett strenuously denied any influence by Beardsley’s work) – merely that the peacock feather & queer face symbols were in general artistic circulation before either Sett or Stirling came along, and cannot therefore be taken as reliable evidence that Stirling copied from Sett. In fact, both the peacock feather & the queer face have much older antecedents than Beardsley – strange to say, involving Chinese numismatics – but it is not necessary to go into details of those here.

Fig 3

Fig 4

This leaves us with the Vultures, and here the resemblance is very striking and much more difficult to explain. It is possible that Stirling copied his vulture from one of Sett’s (there are two of them in Sett’s illustration.)  He was certainly not above ‘recycling’ his own images – witness the fact that in his illustrations for A.W. Hamilton’s Malayan Nursery Rhymes (1923), the young girl in “Mary had a Little Lamb” looks suspiciously like the one in “Where are you going to, my Pretty Maid ?” But whether he ‘recycled’ one of Sett’s Vultures is another matter – it might be the case, for example, that both artists used a common ‘model’ – an illustration in a book about birds, for example. But even if he got this image from Sett, it proves only that Stirling knew about Sett’s edition. It certainly does not, to my mind, prove that Sett illustrated the Lotus edition.

To address the other points raised by Danton in his comments on the previous post: first, why didn’t Stirling “sign” each of his pictures with his monogram as he did for the 1924 Asiatic Society article? Perhaps for the same reason that he didn’t sign any of his illustrations in Malayan Nursery Rhymes – his name was at the front of the book, in full in the front of Malayan Nursery Rhymes, in monogram form in the case of the Lotus edition. Why use the monogram instead of his full name at the front of the Lotus edition? I don’t know – perhaps he realised that this was a rather wild experiment in the art of Rubaiyat illustration, and, being a respectable civil servant by day at the time, he wanted to put his stamp on the book without being too easily recognised if it caused a scandal with the likes of its nude opium-den scene!

As for “New Lamps for Old”, I suspect that the Old Lamps were the staid editions of the likes of Edmund Dulac and René Bull, or of lesser lights like Gilbert James. Certainly Stirling’s Lotus edition – like Sett’s – stands out as a refreshing change in the routine flow of illustrated Rubaiyats.

Finally, on a different point of interpretation, Danton (p.21) seems to take FitzGerald’s line “Oh, Thou, who didst with Pitfall and with Gin” (v.57 of the 1st edition) to refer to the alcoholic drink, gin. My understanding is that Gin here is more commonly taken to be the old English word meaning a snare or a trap.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. dantonoday permalink
    May 9, 2018 8:15 pm

    Great job in finding out who I now agree is the artist of the Lotus Edition: W.G. Stirling. In my five books on the first artists of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, my goal has been to document all of those artists whose work was published in books for the general public up to 1929. As the first person to do this, I know that there will be errors that I hope readers will help correct. As you have noted, I supported and provided evidence supporting M.K. Sett as the artist of the Lotus book. I presented strong data based on what was known at that time. While the data in my book still stand, my interpretation was wrong. This will allow me to update the Lotus story should I pursue a revised edition. As I have learned, there is still a lot of information that is missing about the first artists. If people can share their knowledge as you have done, then a complete and accurate story can be told. My goal is to be a part of writing that story and I’m glad there are others who share this goal. Danton O’Day

  2. May 21, 2018 9:51 am

    Alan Birch, whose message stimulated our original post about the ‘unknown artist’ of the 1918 Lotus edition, has sent us a further comment.

    “I would like to thank you and your contributors for identifying the illustrator of the Lotus edition.
    Stirling also wrote and illustrated Opium Smoking Among the Chinese in 1913. This book might give an insight into the illustrations for the Lotus edition. According to World Cat there is a copy of this earlier work in the Wellcome Library in London.”

    Alan has also sent some further information about W G Stirling’s life, including his marriage to a Chinese girl in the Straits Settlements, and an incident in which WGS was stabbed by a Chinese man who had come to consult him in his capacity as Assistant Protector of the Chinese.

    Thank you Alan for this additional material.

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